Ram’s Manual Gearbox Gives Driver Control

Jan. 19, 2015

Want to really drive your heavy pickup? Then in your next purchase, specify a manual transmission. That means buying a Ram because the Fiat Chrysler brand is the only one still offering a manual in this class of truck. It can be had with a down-rated Cummins Turbodiesel in the 2500 and 3500 models.

Only about 5 percent of buyers choose it, the builder says, because almost everybody else prefers the ease of driving an automatic transmission. And automatics have become so efficient that in most hands they’ll deliver slightly better fuel economy.

Test Set

Truck: Ram 2500 Heavy Duty pickup, 4-door crewcab w/ 8-foot long bed, GVW 9,900 lb.

Engine: Cummins Turbodiesel, 6.7 liters (408 cu. in.), 350 hp @ 2,800 rpm, 660 lb.-ft. @ 1,400 rpm

Clutch: Schaeffler LuK 320mm single-disc self-adjusting

Transmission: M-B G56 6-speed synchromesh w/ 6th overdrive

Transfer case: Borg-Warner 44-47 2-speed w/ 2.64 Low

Axles: American Axle Mfg. 9.25-in. beam front, 11.5-in. beam rear, w/ 3.42-ratio differentials, on link-coil suspensions

Wheelbase: 168.9 inches

Brakes: TRW discs w/ TRW ABS

Tires & wheels: Firestone LT245/70R17E BSW all-season, on steel discs

Fuel capacity: 31 gallons

Yet a manual offers the satisfaction and joy of being in control, and operating it skillfully.

“Customers who prefer manual transmissions talk about wanting to have control over which gear they are in while towing,” said Nick Cappa, a spokesman for Ram Commercial Truck. Kyle Flynn, a salesman at Teamray Motorsports in Bellevue, Ohio, which sells used trucks and cars, said the manual-tranny buyer is “someone who’s doing a lot of hauling, especially long-haul commercial trailer towing. They have the perception that a manual lasts longer.”

It saves no money over an automatic when buying new, but a manual will probably bring more money at resale time.

Flynn declined to put a dollar figure on it because so much else enters into a used truck’s asking price, including cab style, various equipment, mileage and condition. But the sheer rarity of a manual will add at least a thousand and maybe two, at least in the ads I’ve seen in trader publications. Dealers know they have something special and want to charge for it. Whether they pay extra for it in a trade-in is another matter.

This mental track began last fall as I watched a 30-something lady in a late-’90s Dodge Ram Heavy Duty pickup pass by as I stood outside the entrance to a supermarket. The dirty black truck had an unmuffled Cummins Turbodiesel exhaling through 4-inch-diameter twin chrome stacks; it burbled loudly and lustily. I watched her downshift smoothly to 2nd gear as she slowed, then sped up to move toward the street. 

“Well, look at her!” I mumbled to myself. Then, “Now that’s a truck!” A couple of weeks later I was talking with Cappa and told him that little story. I asked if any manual-tranny Rams were in the press fleet for me to try out. “No,” he said, “but you know what? There should be. Let me see if we can order one.” He did and they did, and a few months later the Flame Red 2500 crewcab long-bed 4x4 pickup was at my house. I left my SUV under the carport for a week while I drove the Ram everywhere I had to go. I never hauled anything substantial, but it was fun.

The 6-speed gearbox comes from Mercedes-Benz, and it’s a smoothie. Within minutes of the red Ram’s arrival, I climbed into the driver’s seat and cranked over the Cummins, but only after jamming the clutch pedal all the way to the floor before an electric interlock allowed the starter to work. Then I played with the gearshift lever to gauge its feel. There were fewer than 1,000 miles on the odometer so movement was a little stiff. I put it in 1st and eased out the pedal to test the ratio, and found it to be a crawler, as I expected. There was no need to give it any gas—er, diesel fuel—just engage the clutch at engine-idle speed and move away. That’d be just right with a heavy load or while pulling a heavy trailer, I figured.

Not wasting any time, I headed down the driveway and turned onto the county road out front. With the Cummins’ strong torque, 2nd gear was fine for starting out while running light, again with the engine only idling and little slipping of the clutch. I moved away and upshifted steadily, my right arm and left leg tense while I got the feel of the lever and the clutch linkage. Over the next half hour I missed some shifts and got lost in the shift pattern a few times, once trying to start out in 4th and killing the engine. Eventually I found that, while in Neutral, the lever’s spring loading returned it to the center, exactly between 3rd and 4th. Then manipulating it for the other gears got easier. 

As for upper gear ratios, 5th is 1 to 1 direct and 6th is a 0.74 overdrive that can be used as low as 45 mph because the Cummins is content all the way down to 1,300 rpm, and less while going downhill. At 70 mph in 6th, the tachometer said the engine spun at about 2,100, a common cruising speed for many lighter-duty trucks and cars these days. I often downshifted through 5th and 4th while slowing for traffic and red lights, and it was easy with the gearbox’s syrupy synchros. Fourth or 3rd were good for powering out of right-angle turns on city streets.

The transfer case was also manual, with a stubby lever sticking out of the hump ahead and to the left of the gearshift lever. I used the 4x4 function just once, when the rear wheels began spinning on wet grass as I tried to back up a slight grade in my front yard. Switching to 4-high got the truck moving. There the steering got a little clunky—something common with part-time 4x4 systems—so I quickly shifted back to 2H.

The truck itself, with high-rated coil springs, rode stiffly but well, turned in a reasonably small circle for its long wheelbase, and was easy to back up and maneuver. With Tradesman trim, the interior was simple with lots of black and dark gray panels. Seats were vinyl covered but well-shaped and supportive. There was plenty of leg room in front and a fair amount in the back-seat area of the cab, and those seats folded up for extra storage space. The long bed would gobble up a lot of stuff, but I used it only once, to take an old truck door to a scrap yard.

The speedo and tach were large and easy to read, and a pair of small gauges showed levels for fuel and diesel exhaust fluid. And that’s it—no engine condition gauges at all. Sure, some information could be called up on the small LED screen on the panel just ahead, but I had to scroll through a long series of choices to find one in particular. I much prefer real gauges to give me that info at a glance.

Still, this was a neat truck and I’d have gladly kept it longer—maybe for many years. If I ran a fleet of these trucks, though, I would likely choose automatic transmissions. Most young people today have never driven a manual, so why spend time educating them? And the Chrysler- or Aisen-made automatics can also be pleasurable to drive if one pays attention to their manual capabilities. They’re fine while ignored, too, which is why 95 percent of Ram buyers—and all customers of other makes—take them.